World of Words: ‘Innards’ dissects our discomfort with the past

April 29, 2024, 11:28 p.m.

In “World of Words,” Breanna Burke reviews international books as a way to explore different cultures and perspectives on life.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Growing up, I had an innate curiosity for the story of the beginning. Whether it was the origins of my own family or the world, I was determined to understand the past in hopes that it would make my present make more sense. 

In her short story collection, “Innards,” Magogodi oaMphela Makhene seems to be driven by the same sentiment. Intertwining rich stories with the tumultuous history of apartheid-era South Africa, Makhene is not afraid of presenting the harsh reality of resistance and suffering even if the reception is impalpable. From grim past realities, she presents alternative ways of viewing present-day South Africa.

Set in the city of Soweto, Makhene brings the historical setting of each story to life with a meticulous level of detail. In the second short story of the book, “Old Potchefstroom Road,” she uses vivid descriptions — a hallmark of her narrative style — to immerse her readers. In a remote settlement where “flocks of ashy children pecked about the street in gray packs,” Makhene narrates the poignant story of a young woman, Ethel, and her family as they settle in a new home with rooms so small that “they could be folded up and stuffed into the lorry.” 

Whilst the story of the everyday lives of Ethel’s family is compelling, “Old Potchefstroom Road” is at its most evocative when Ethel reunites with her brother Kingsley, who — due to being unemployed and not having a “white man to sign his papers” — is designated a “prohibited alien.”

It is through simple yet profound plots such as these, as well as characters whose lives are complexified by the injustices perpetrated by apartheid, that Makhene not only entrances readers but also forces them to face the atrocities of history.

Makhene’s masterfully intricate attention to detail in shaping her plots and characters is not just beautiful to read. Her writing also forces vulnerability in readers, even if readers begin reading unwilling to confront the atrocities of our past. 

In “The Caretaker,” when a Boer policeman kills a family’s “rabies-infected dog,” the parallelism between the hunting of the beloved animal and the racially oppressed in South Africa is undeniably poignant. The sound of the dog “writhing about in the dirt” as he is shot and his “breath scratching around for sound” was noticeably comparable to the torture Black people in several other stories in the novel experience. 

I found myself taking several breaks from reading the novel in order to lighten the emotional load of the immense suffering, both descriptively portrayed and metaphorically hidden in the stories. Yet the more I read, the more I came to realize Makhene’s reason behind unearthing the brutality of this moment in history. In the face of injustice and in confronting the tainted histories that make us who we are, we must experience discomfort. We must actively choose to not divert our gaze and, instead, face head on the pain that has forged the world we live in. 

Perhaps only this way can we learn from history and choose to move forward. “Innards” suggests that, through understanding the stories of those who came before us, we can shape a new narrative of our world — one where no human being has to experience what has broken us in the past.

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